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 Timber shortage forcing change in Finland's wood industry
[Sep 15,  2023]


Timber shortage forcing change in Finland's wood industry

Faced with a fall in supplies, the forest products sector is looking to focus on more highly processed, higher-value products.

According to Ali Harlin, a research professor at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, the availability of wood as a raw material for industry is already a problem in Finland.

"You can send a thank-you note for that to the Kremlin. We have drifted into a situation where we have a significant shortage of wood, above all in southeast Finland," says Harlin.

The first industrial victim of the wood shortage was the Sunila pulp mill in Kotka. The Finnish forestry products firm Stora Enso announced in early September that the mill is to close by the end of the year. Announcing the closure, the company said the mill is no longer profitable, a situation caused especially by the end of the import of raw timber from Russia.

Shortage here to stay

Before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine about 18 months ago, Finland imported about 7ĘC10 percent of the raw wood used in the processing industry from Russia. In southeastern Finland, the share of Russian wood used by mills was even higher.

Finland's forest industry is now facing a major transformation, spurred by a lack of materials.

"The availability of wood as a raw material is becoming increasingly challenging and increasingly limited," Harlin points out.

In addition to the end of imports from Russia, the growing use of wood in the form of wood chips or pellets in biofuel energy production has contributed to the shortage at mills.

Increased forest harvesting, on the other hand, is difficult due to the EU's carbon sink obligations. The growth of forests has also declined in recent years and is unlikely to recover to its previous level.

New products coming

According to Harlin, the solution to the shortage of raw materials is to increase the value of the forest industry's end products.

"Creating added value by increasing volume is no longer possible as it was with the previous model. Instead, more added value needs to be created from the same amount of raw materials," Harlin explained.

Clear signs of this trend are already visible.

"Investments in new products have multiplied during the 2020s, as compared to the past, and projects are now being actively advanced to the trial phase," he says.

Lignin is one possibility

Lignin is one of the main chemical building blocks of trees and makes up 20-30 percent of the composition of wood. Traditionally it has been discarded as waste by the pulp and paper industries, but no longer.

One of the forest industry's new highly processed, high-value products may be fine carbon powder, which can be used in lithium-ion batteries.

Even though Stora Enso is closing its Sunila Mill, a pilot plant for carbon product at the site will continue in operation. The company is also looking for other uses for lignin.

"We have developed, for example, lignin-based glue, with the entire product being bio-based. In addition to this, we have tested the use of lignin as a substitute for bitumen, for example in making asphalt," explains Satu Härkönen, Stora Enso's communications chief.

According to Harlin, forest industry companies already have more than a dozen promising products of higher processing value in the development pipeline.

"There are, for example, new textile fibres made from cellulose, biocarbon-based materials such as carbon fibre and new packaging materials," Harlin notes.

Substitutes for wood fibre

Many companies are now also looking for sources of materials to replace wood fibres.

The Fiber-X-Finland company is testing such new fibre sources for the pulp industry. According to CEO Mikko Ruuska, there is a demand for testing, and most of it comes from abroad.

"There is now a clear world demand for products to be made from alternative raw materials, which are in practice waste or by-products," Ruuska says.

He also points out that the international fast fashion clothing giants in particular want to make clothes from waste materials. Alternatives to wood fibres can be, for example, waste fibres obtained from agriculture such as straw and hemp.

"There is a lot of field waste in the world after the growing season, which is burned. This can be used to make pulp, which can be used to make clothes, for example," notes Ruuska.

Source: yle.fi